Empty Houses by Brenda Navarro review two women, one missing child

Translated by Sophie Hughes, this powerfully bleak Mexican debut is a taut two-hander that examines motherhood through the prism of a child’s abduction. It’s narrated by two unnamed women in Mexico City. The first – middle-class, married to a man from Spain – tells us that her three-year-old son, Daniel, hasn’t been seen since he went missing in a playground while she was absorbed in her phone: the man she was having an affair with had just texted to break things off. Now unable to get out of bed, she’s dead-eyed with self-loathing, her agony intensified by having to care for her husband’s Catalan niece, Nagore, of whom they took custody after the girl’s father murdered her mother. This is a novel in which violence is endemic.

Empty Houses starts very much in the vein of contemporary fiction about put-upon women whose circumstances tip them into misanthropy; think of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, the rise of Ottessa Moshfegh and the post-Gone Girl vogue for marital thrillers. “Breastfeeding is the reflex of mothers who, given that they can’t eat their children, wish to smother them instead,” Daniel’s mother reflects. “We offer the breast not only on instinct but out of an obliterated desire to kill our progeny before it’s too late.”

While the subject matter gets no more cheerful, there’s a shift from these moody, grief-fogged pronouncements when we join the novel’s second, more kinetic thread, narrated by the working-class woman who abducted Daniel, in desperation at not having a child with her boyfriend, Rafa, an abusive, philandering petty crook. When she’s miscarrying his baby, he’s sleeping with his school-age sister-in-law.

A mounting sense of dread lies in watching these flawed and troubled characters navigate an increasingly dire situation. Navarro puts you in the shoes of a child snatcher frantically building a life based on unsustainable lies, to herself most of all. She knows that Rafa is no good (he doesn’t call the police only because she’s covered in bruises he gave her), and the one solid thing for her to hold on to – the livelihood she has carved out selling handmade chocolate lollies to caterers serving birthday parties – is unsurprisingly put in peril by Daniel’s abduction, though not in a way we can guess.

A fluently mixed-up timeline makes it easy to lose our bearings – years have passed since Daniel’s disappearance – and our sense of both women’s misery deepens as the backstory unpixellates. The split narrative tempts us to see the book as a competition – which woman suffers more? Yet as we see the workings of chance conspire against both, our sense of dramatic irony only amplifies the lack of solidarity available to these women, connected yet trapped in their own stories.

Navarro heightens the horror by never entering Daniel’s perspective, showing him only as his captor sees him, repeatedly soiling himself, droning “ore, ore, ore” (if you’re more alert than me, you’ll understand how heartbreaking that is long before the novel makes it clear). As the web around the second narrator pulls tight, we read the final pages at an electric pitch. If part of the novel’s power lies in the unknowing that haunts Daniel’s mother, the climax doubles that.

In these locked-down days you may turn to fiction as a source of good cheer. Empty Houses obviously isn’t that. As a portrait of cruelty, it isn’t itself cruel – in fact it’s full of empathy, challengingly so. But it does outline a moral universe devoid of redemption, in which justice is a mirage, and we’re left wondering what the concept even means.